Montana Audubon

Montana Audubon works at the local, state and national policy levels to protect our natural heritage.

How Much Wilderness is Enough?

Certain Montana wildlands have been in the news a great deal recently, namely our Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). These are classified as undeveloped federal land with characteristics of designated Wilderness protected by federal law. Montana currently has seven WSAs on US Forest Service land (about 634,500 acres); and 37 WSAs on Bureau of Land Management lands (almost 450,000 acres). WSAs cannot be part of the National Wilderness Preservation System until the US Congress passes Wilderness legislation; however, they must be managed as wilderness until they are designated or released from such consideration.

Sapphire Mountain WSA. MT Wilderness Assoc. photo.

In 1977, Montana Senator Lee Metcalf passed federal legislation to create nine Montana Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) on US Forest Service land. The lands contained within two of these WSAs were later designated as either Wilderness, Wildlife Management Areas, or released from consideration as Wilderness. The remaining seven areas still carry the WSA designation, which means the US Forest Service must manage them “so as to maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.”

In December 2017, Senator Steve Daines introduced federal legislation to eliminate 449,500 acres in five of Montana’s Wilderness Study Areas found on US Forest Service land. According to the Great Falls Tribune, Senator Daines described these areas as “improperly managed public lands.” The title of the bill, the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act, raised questions in conservation circles.

Big Snowy Mountain WSA. Missoulian photo.

Here are what wilderness advocates say are the most important reasons to oppose Senator Daines’ bill—and why these lands should be maintained as Wilderness Study Areas:

  • Wilderness Study Areas Should be Studied. In the past, when WSA status is removed from an area, it is because locally-driven, collaborative processes have decided which parts of the land should continue to receive Wilderness (or other) protection, and which areas can be released from Wilderness consideration. Because Senator Daines removes protection from all acres within current WSAs, he abruptly stops these local processes—and releases all the areas from consideration. This approach is heavy handed with the intention of benefiting motorized recreationists (who are prevented from accessing designated Wilderness areas)
  • Montanans Treasure Wilderness. Our state’s WSAs represent the heart and soul of Montana. These places set Montana aside from all others in the Lower 48. During the 2017 Montana Legislature, thousands of Montanans emailed and called their legislators when these areas were under threat by Rep. Kerry White’s H.J. 9. This support forced Rep. White and other Republicans to add language to the resolution calling on Congress to consider designating the WSAs as Wilderness.
  • These Areas are Important for Wildlife and Clean Water. Many of the WSAs supply clean

    Pioneer Mountains. Great Falls Tribune photo.

    drinking water to nearby communities. In addition, Montana is blessed with some of the healthiest population of elk and other big game animals in North America, and these creatures rely on WSAs. Clean water flowing from these lands also feeds our blue-ribbon trout streams. Local economies depend on these areas to sustain their communities and the outdoor recreation economy.

  • Many WSAs Allow for Unparalleled Backcountry Experiences. Hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, lake fishing, rock climbing, skiing, and more are undertaken in these WSAs. This type of outdoor recreation also helps sustain local outdoor recreation economies through tourism, equipment sales, guiding, etc.

Blue Joint WSA. MT Wilderness Assoc. photo.

When the time comes, we will be calling on you to help stop Senator Daines’ bill that releases many of our state’s Wilderness Study Areas!

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